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Donostia Book Club

My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl

Our Thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle"

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

- 4th novel, published in 1963


- title 'cat's cradle' = string game; 


It was the game Dr. Felix Hoenikker, father of the atom bomb, was playing with his youngest son, Newton, on the day the atomic bomb went off in Hiroshima. The game is a major symbol for evil in the book, for the lies humans construct and then get entangled by. Newt tells Jonah that it is “One of the oldest games there is” (Chpt. 74, p. 165). That is why it is difficult to know how it started or how to undo it. It connects everything in a meaningless complexity. For instance, the string that Felix used to play the game was ironically taken from the manuscript of a novel about the end of the world by a bomb invented by mad scientists. This clearly connects the string game with the atomic bomb and the end of the world. The image suggests that evil is constructed by humans.

Later Newt paints an ugly picture looking like a spider’s web that suggests to the narrator “the sticky nets of human frailty”(Chpt. 74, p. 164). Newt tells him it is a cat’s cradle: “For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces . . . no wonder kids grow up crazy” (Chpt. 74, p. 165). Newt is outraged by this hypocritical game, because he sees “No damn cat, and no damn cradle” (Chpt. 74, p. 166). Every time another lie is exposed, Newt jokes, “See the cat? See the cradle?” (Chpt. 80, p. 179)." (2)


- "Like most of his works, Cat's Cradle is a satirical look at the structures and mores that underlie our society and our species, with particular attention paid to politics, science, religion, and all the other lies that make up our lives. By deconstructing these institutions, Vonnegut invites us to appreciate the fact that most of the truths to which we hold fast are really rather silly when examined closely" (1)


- first line and character's name


In the first line of Cat's Cradle, the narrator invites us to "Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John." Anyone with a semester of freshman lit or a subscription to Classics Illustrated will immediately recognize the reference to Melville's Moby Dick, which opens with "Call me Ishmael." But what does Vonnegut hope to accomplish with this? InMoby (the novel, not the bald techno artist), Ishmael serves as witness to the increasingly insane pursuit of Moby Dick by Captain Ahab, a quest that can be seen as representative of man's immortal -- and some would say, just as futile -- quest for truth. "Jonah" also alludes to the Biblical Jonah, who was swallowed whole by a whale (literally a "great fish") as punishment for disobeying God. Once released from the belly of the beast, Jonah has learned his lesson and is more than willing to go about God's Good Work. John spends Cat's Cradlein an Ahab-esque quest to find the whole story of Dr. Felix Hoenikker and kin. As the novel progresses, that quest becomes more and more a quest for truth or meaning. Once he learns of the existence of Ice-9 -- the isotope of water that is solid at room temperature and contaminates any other water it touches -- and that each of Dr. Hoenikker's children is in possession of some, John makes it his quest to find them. It is never clear what he intends to do if his search succeeds. Ishmael watched as his captain foolishly pursued the whale that had taken his leg, a pursuit that in the end destroyed him. For Jonah, the whale came to him. The message seems to be that whether we choose to chase the truth or run from it, it will inevitably turn around and swallow us whole. Damned if you do, damned if you don't is a philosophy Vonnegut seems to particularly enjoy.

John's name may also be intended to echo that of two Biblical prophets, John the Baptist and John of Patmos. John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ and ended up with his head on a platter for his troubles. God gave John of Patmos an elaborate vision of the end of the world, much of which he could not easily understand. The John of Cat's Cradle is also a prophet of sorts. His gradual conversion from Christianity to Bokononism, the fictional religion created by Vonnegut, is at the heart of the novel. As he pursues the Hoenikkers across the globe, each time he comes to a realization that pushes him one step closer to a Bokononist outlook, he comments on it, quoting the appropriate Bokononist tenet. John is narrating the events of Cat's Cradle from the future, more specifically from the "end of the world" described in the last few chapters of the novel. His story is the Gospel of the Final Stupidity of Mankind, a doctrine of supreme futility. Furthermore, his conversion to Bokononism foreshadows the eventual coming of Bokonon himself, who does not actually appear until the very end of the book. Unlike traditional messiahs, however, Bokonon's appearance does not bring redemption, salvation, or answers to all of life's questions. Rather, he leaves a note, the gist of which is, "life is silly and unpleasant," and vanishes" (1)


- epigraph

"Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

Nothing in this book is true.

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

The Book of Bokonon 1:5

At first glance, this epigraph seems unnecessary. Of course Cat's Cradle isn't true. That's why the nice bookseller shelved it in the fiction section. And the world hasn't ended in an ice-nine apocalypse, so there's that too.

The epigraph's actual purpose is to introduce one of the story's major themes. As we'll learn, foma is the Bokononist word for lies, so Bokonon's argument is that certain lies will "make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." The epigraph is asking you to look for value in the lies that brings those qualities to your life—whether those lies are religion, love, or, just maybe, even this book of fiction.

It also suggests that the opposite might be true. Maybe the truth actually makes us cowardly, mean-spirited, weak, and unhappy" (3)


- Felix Hoenikker - a fictional co-inventor of the atom bomb inspired by a real person: the Nobel Prize winning chemist Irving Langmuir. As Vonnegut said" "Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whoever was around, but any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn't give a damn who got it next."


- the Republic of San Lorenzo, where most of the action takes place, is a fictional country in the Caribbean Sea, close to Puerto Rico


- 1st person central narrative style


- Illium = 'latinized' Troy (!)


- The end: John is the narrator of 'Cat's Cradle' and narrates the story after the fact. Would that mean it's the "history of human stupidity" that Bokonon suggested? Is John on the top of the mountain with the book under his head ready to commit suicide? John's suicide and becoming a statue would become a symbol of human stupidity


- Bokonon in person appears in the story only once



(1) http://www.strangehorizons.com/2003/20030324/truths.shtml

(2) http://www.novelguide.com/cats-cradle/metaphor-analysis

(3) http://www.shmoop.com/cats-cradle-vonnegut/epigraph.html